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Mitt Romney
Will Romney still look this cheerful in November? (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

A couple of days ago, Quinnipiac presented a swing states poll that turned quite a few heads and became an immediate source of conversation. President Obama, according to the Q poll, had a rather modest 3-point lead in Pennsylvania, but all the talk was about the more healthy leads the president enjoyed in the key swing states of Florida (where Obama led 49-42) and Ohio (where Obama led 47-41).

The general consensus was that these were awfully good numbers for Obama, in states that team Romney absolutely needs to have come November. But this was not a universal opinion, however. A notable dissent came from Hotline editor Josh Kraushaar, who tweeted the following:

Obama job approval in critical battlegrounds: 45% (PA), 47% (OH), 47% (PA), 48% (WI). These aren't winning numbers.http://bit.ly/...
@HotlineJosh via web

Kraushaar's take is based on a dollop of conventional wisdom that is not uncommon: that, this far out from Election Day, the incumbent's job approval numbers may prove to be more instructive than head-to-head trial heat numbers.

The logic behind this is that the challenger will become better known as the campaign wears on. What's more, that challenger is more likely than not to consolidate support among his own partisans, the lack of universal support from which might depress his early numbers.

Lydia Saad from Gallup noted that sentiment earlier this year, when she reflected on the upcoming election year:

With five of the eight former presidents who sought re-election -- George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, and Lyndon Johnson -- winning a second term, and three -- George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, and Gerald Ford -- losing, the January approval ratings do not appear to be strongly predictive of the election outcome.

However, by March of the re-election year, approval ratings for all of the prior presidents largely portended their fate. Ford's, Carter's, and the elder Bush's March ratings were all well below 50%, while Clinton's, Reagan's, Nixon's, and Johnson's were above that mark. George W. Bush's rating was 49%, right on the cusp of the level Gallup considers determinant for re-election.

President Obama's average approval rating as March drew to a close, according to the most recent Pollster average? 47.2 percent. By Gallup's (and Kraushaar's) standards, it would seem that Barack Obama might be a bit of an underdog.

Except that he's not. For a couple of reasons.

(Continue reading below the fold)

Reason #1 is that approval rating is not always predictive. Indeed, in the most recent apples-to-apples electoral comparison (2004—incumbent George W. Bush versus challenger John Kerry), Gallup acknowledged in a separate article that Bush's job approval at the time of his re-election was 48 percent.

Reason #2, of course, is that Obama will ultimately be running against somebody in November. That somebody, it is nearly universally assumed, will be former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. And, the bottom line is simply this: Mitt Romney is very, very unloved by the American electorate.

To illustrate this, let's come full circle and go back to that Quinnipiac "swing state" poll. Take a look at what has happened to Mitt Romney's favorability numbers in those three states over the past four months. Interestingly, the Q poll hit up the trio of Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania at the same time in early December, before the GOP nomination contest began in earnest. Check out the change in the net favorability numbers for the presumptive Republican nominee during that time.

FLORIDA: December—37/29 (+8); March—41/36 (+5)
OHIO: December—32/28 (+4); March—36/43 (-7)
PENNSYLVANIA: December—34/30 (+4); March 37/38 (-1)
And bear in mind, Romney actually won Florida and Ohio. And yet he is less favorable in the eyes of voters now than he was before the nomination fight began. It is a trend that is also reflected nationally, where Pollster's net estimate of Romney's favorability spread is at a net negative 9 points (38/47).

By way of comparison, a cursory glance at the net favorabilities for one John Kerry show that he was at about a net +10 at this point in the 2004 cycle. It's not atypical for a candidate to come firing out of the primary cycle, only to get beaten down in the general. This is what eventually happened to Kerry, whose net faves dropped to 41/47 in a CBS poll on Election Eve of 2004. If Romney's favorability ratings are this weak already, despite underfunded and pretty unspectacular competition, any benefit from consolidation within his own party seems likely to be offset by the damage that a competent opposition campaign can inflict on him.

Ironically, Josh Kraushaar himself noted that Mitt Romney currently has pretty shoddy favorability numbers in a recent column. Although, based on what he wrote, he seems to be at war with himself a bit on what makes for a winning presidential campaign:

Favorability ratings for challengers this far out aren’t particularly predictive. Then-Gov. Bill Clinton owned a dismal 34 percent favorable rating versus 46 percent unfavorable in April 1992, when headlines blared that his sex scandals made him unelectable against President George H.W. Bush. Former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis sported strong favorability ratings into the summer of 1988, before the Bush campaign exploited his vulnerabilities.
The problem, of course, is that using Clinton as an example of a candidate who can overcome weak favorability to score a victory has a fatal flaw. Clinton's victory, while manna from heaven for hungry Democrats desperate to taste the White House after 12 years in the wilderness, was actually pretty underwhelming because of his favorability issues. If Kraushaar thinks Obama's 45-48 percent approval in those swing states is a fatal flaw, how can he consider it a redemption tale that Clinton scored a five-point win over a president with 34 percent job approval in the weeks leading up to his re-election bid?

In other words, my argument would be that a challenger with negative favorability ratings can still win, but he's going to need a president saddled with job approval numbers a helluva lot lower than 47 percent to pull it off.

Kraushaar's second example is also instructive. Dukakis had the look of a winner in the summer of 1988, but once he had to face a first-tier campaign, his favorability numbers took a dive. Romney is already underwater, and he ain't going to outspend Obama 4-to-1 or more come September. Why, again, should we expect his numbers to go on some meteoric rise?

What's more, there is at least a little evidence that the GOP primary campaign has actually led voters to do a reassessment of Barack Obama. There is something to be said for the notion of looking better by comparison. President Obama, the data suggests, may well be the beneficiary of that.

On the December week that the initial Quinnipiac "swing states" poll was released, the president's job approval ratings, according to Gallup, stood at an anemic 42/51 spread. His Pollster average that same week stood at 44/50. He now stands with his approval and disapproval numbers only a few tenths apart.

The difference is even more glaring in that Quinnipiac swing states poll. President Obama's fav/unfav ratings in December in Ohio stood at an ugly 42/52. This week, they are at a much improved 49/46. In Florida, meanwhile, the numbers moved from 47/48 in December to 51/44 this week. Even in Pennsylvania, where this round of the Q poll was hardly a Dem-friendly sample, the president has seen an incremental boost (from 46/47 to 48/46).

As always, the standard caveat applies—no one has ever been successfully re-elected in April. But the presumption that Barack Obama is in bad shape based on what are still very middling approval numbers ignores what has to be considered a key component of the electoral question—the quality of his opponent. Mitt Romney starts out the general election campaign significantly less popular than John Kerry was in 2004 with the general electorate, and quite a distance behind where either Barack Obama or John McCain stood  at this point four years ago. Furthermore, while Republicans are counting on some closure in the GOP primary contributing to a bump in Romney's numbers, any benefit from consolidation of GOP support could easily be offset by having a competent rival, flush with cash, waiting in the wings.

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